How To Be On Someone's Team

I’ve often caught myself trying to comfort someone by pointing to the “bright side” or explaining why whatever they’re upset about isn’t such a “big deal.” And I know I’m not alone! It’s human nature to want people to feel better.

nerf-gun.jpg

What I’ve noticed is that when that kind of advice is offered to me, it seldom actually improves my mood. While I’m often touched because I can see the other person cares and wants me to feel good, they’re usually, though not intentionally, dismissing the validity of my experience; or judging my experience as “not right.”

We especially have a tendency to do this with children! From an adult perspective, losing a stuffed animal is not a big deal, but to the four-year old it can be akin to losing a best friend.

My fifteen-year old son often proofreads the articles I write. When he read my last article, he noticed that when his sister was upset I didn’t try to make her feel better, or tell her that she must behave differently, or “get a new attitude.”

He appreciated this and wanted to highlight how the experiences of childhood are no less valid than the experiences of adulthood; it’s just an ever-shifting landscape of values, moods, feelings, and perspectives. And respecting where someone is in the landscape, regardless of age, and understanding that they will shift on their own, is the most loving way to help them find a new space.

Here my son is sharing a moment that was a big deal in his world, and how it looks to him now:

Nine years old; that’s how old I was when it happened. I cried for a long time. It only took a moment, but it was one of those many moments that, at the time, just don’t compute because of how foreign they are.

That day I had been playing with my favorite toy, a NERF gun, and wouldn’t stop, even though there was schoolwork I needed to do. My mom told me to get it done at least a dozen times; she gave me plenty of opportunities to do it without consequences, then one was introduced. “If you don’t get it done I’ll take away your NERF gun” she said.

It was unthinkable, “That couldn’t happen” I told myself “Mom would never take away my NERF gun!” I wasn’t bothered at all. She had threatened this a few times before and had never actually done it. This day was different, however. She took the toy and stuck it up on top of the microwave, a place I couldn’t reach even with a stool.

I was in disbelief. I started laughing thinking it was a joke, but then noticed the NERF gun wasn’t being handed back to me. I scrunched my face and my eyes started tearing up, “Why are you doing this? I was having fun! Get it back down for me!” I yelled at her. When she didn’t give it back, I broke down crying.

Today, this consequence makes lots of sense. It’s clear why I lost the toy and it doesn’t seem like a big deal at all, in fact it seems miniscule. But at the time it was a huge deal; such a big deal that I still remember it today.

Now that I’m older, getting good grades, being with my friends, preparing for driver’s ed, those things feel like a big deal.

And when handling some of these “Big Deal” events, I’ve gotten upset. Even as upset as I got when I was nine, minus the yelling.

I’ve lost a few things too, like all of the photos on my phone, and was okay with that. For me, it wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t get upset. For someone else, that might have been a tragedy.

Everyone has a different frame of reference. What is a “Big Deal” to one person is not necessarily a big one for someone else. It is important to understand that just because someone’s frame of reference is different from yours, does not mean they aren’t feeling just as strongly as you; regardless of age. To a kid, losing a toy could be just as upsetting as losing a house would be to an adult.

Frames of reference are not something that people need to agree with, but still should not be dismissed. 

  1. The way someone is feeling is simply their reality in the moment, and it’s not wrong. It is how they see the world.

  2. The way they are feeling will change; there is not a single person on the planet who has felt one thing for the entirety of their life.

  3. The way they feel may not align with our own frame of reference, and that’s okay.

Understanding this, we can be with others and move forward with respect, compassion, and connectedness.


– Dylan Higgins